Wellesley and Northwestern Researchers Publish Report on Effects of Work Requirements on SNAP and Medicaid Recipients

September 6, 2018
Professor Kristin Butcher teaches an economic class.

Congress continues to debate imposing work requirements as a condition of receiving assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in its attempt to come up with a version of the 2018 farm bill that will pass in both houses. Meanwhile, researchers are pointing out that it is important to understand the labor market faced by beneficiaries. 

Many recipients of SNAP (or food stamps) and Medicaid benefits are already working, but in low-paying and volatile jobs, according to research by a team led by Kristin F. Butcher ’86, Marshall I. Goldman Professor of Economics at Wellesley, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach ’95, Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and that included Abigail Pitts ’17.   

For months, the issue of imposing work requirements on SNAP beneficiaries has been a topic for debate among members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as part of the 2018 farm bill.  It is expected to come up for renewed debate this month. President Trump will sign the bill into law once both chambers agree on an identical version.

Published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and policy institute, the team’s work has also been cited by the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the American Prospect.

Currently, millions of working people rely on SNAP to make ends meet. Benefit recipients who do not currently work substantial amounts are disproportionately likely to have lower levels of education, and are likelier to be women.

Common occupations among SNAP and Medicaid recipients include healthcare workers, cashiers, and cooks. All workers in these occupations—whether benefit recipients or not—face low wages and less stability than people in occupations more typically held by people with above-median wages.

The researchers found that unemployment rates are higher for these workers, and they are more likely than workers in above-median-wage occupations to be displaced by plants closing or companies relocating.    

People who work in occupations common among benefits recipients are not necessarily on a path to steady employment and better paying jobs in the middle class, said Butcher. “People can work a substantial amount one year and lose their job the next year,” she said. “It is a highly volatile job market.”

“There is no guarantee that one will accumulate work experience and skills that will lead to increased work or wages in the next year,” according to the report. 

The Council of Economic Advisers to the President issued a report this summer that supported imposing work requirements. Butcher said her team’s report “examines something that the Council of Economic Advisers’ report largely ignored: that people who are most likely to use SNAP and Medicaid face a job market with low-paying and volatile jobs, such that it may be impossible for them to meet work requirements at the times they need the safety net the most.”

Photo: Kristin F. Butcher ’86, Marshall I. Goldman Professor of Economics at Wellesley teaches her econometrics class in Pendleton East.